Review: Dawn Richard delivers protest music with a dance beat on ‘Redemption’
With a gleaming head piece falling past her shoulders like some futuristic deity, Dawn Richard could pass for Sun Ra’s spiritual cousin on the cover of her latest album, “Redemption” (Our Dawn Entertainment).
The singer used to be in pop vocal group Danity Kane, but the music she’s been making on her three latest solo albums — including “Goldenheart” (2013) and “Blackheart” (2015) — flirts with the avant-garde, even as it keeps one Afro-futuristic space boot on the dance floor. With a supple but never showy voice, Richard is an artist with far bigger ambitions than rushing the pop charts.
“Redemption” dials down the beats-per-minute to strike a more reflective tone. Even opener “Love Under Lights,” which gestures toward the kind of glo-stick bombast typical of EDM raves, becomes something else. Rather than building toward a crescendo, it turns pensive and morphs into what could pass for a field recording from the Middle East or the Sahara with cow bell percussion and chanting.
In tandem primarily with producer Machinedrum (Travis Stewart), Richard creates soundscapes as much as melodies, and turns dance tracks into protest music. The New Orleans-born artist of Creole and Haitian descent champions society’s underdogs. Over the pingponging keyboards of “Black Crimes,” she identifies with those who are “doing time … we’re sentenced to life” for having the temerity to be born a certain color, gender or sexual orientation.
The album folds a recurring question inside music that melds machine-like cadences with organic virtuosity. “Can you hear the voices?” she sings with increasing defiance on one track. On “LA,” a poignant plea — “We just want to know if we really matter?” — plays out over a suitelike track that links together lean electronic rhythms, a big guitar solo and then a skittering trumpet coda by jazz great Trombone Shorty.
A few songs fail to blossom beyond an initial intriguing burst of color. But the album’s ambitions reward long-haul, continuous listening — a collection of songs that works most persuasively as an album. Even the snippets and interludes that tie the tracks together serve a purpose, never more so than on the concluding “Valhalla.”
“Run away with me,” she sings, “the open dreams where rebels are the majority and my color isn’t minority. . Escape.”
Even the distortion can’t hide the ache in her voice. On the album cover, in her Sun Ra-like finery, Richard looks prepared for a voyage that she knows may be a long way off.
Dawn Richards, ‘Redemption’